Sunday Dinner with Pope Francis

It was a housewarming, a mini-reunion, a celebration of a new baby, a send-off for an overseas music tour.

It was also a discussion of religion and Pope Francis.

This always happens in my family.

The religion under discussion is often Catholicism -- both sides are Catholic going way back.

But much has happened since everyone went through 13 (sometimes 17 or 19) years of Catholic school. Mixed marriages and partnerships -- mixed religiously, racially and internationally. Few going to church anymore, at least not in church buildings. Conversion to other faiths. Conversion to no faith. Children and partners who would not consider themselves Catholic at all, who respect the obsession but also tease about it.

It's not an unusual profile of a Catholic family in the U.S. these days. A Pew survey on the eve of the pope's visit confirms that one in four Americans raised Catholic are now "ex." Millions more are somewhere between "in" and "out."

It's not an unusual profile of an urban neighborhood, marked by four decades of white flight, often Catholic flight. Near our gathering, Our Lady of East New York sits on the grounds of St. John Cantius Roman Catholic Church. She is inscribed with four languages -- Spanish, French, Polish and English -- in a now minority-Catholic area.

It's not an unusual profile of American religion in general, increasingly solo-practiced as spirituality rather than group-ritualized within an institution.

Pope Francis makes progressives generally cheerful. His soon-coming visit to New York seems to make a whole tough city cheerful. My family is no different.

But Pope Francis also radiates all the reasons that we gathered for Sunday dinner without first attending Sunday mass.

Topmost is sad astonishment that Francis might change everything else unmerciful about the church and never budge on women's equality.

One aunt now mostly meditates, but years ago was devoutly Catholic and still identifies with the faith. She brought me the latest National Geographic with the cover story on Pope Francis. The photographs enrapture. My aunt pointed to the photo of the cardinals and bishops in procession at the Vatican. The rich visuals made her "finally get it," she said, why people ask if this pope will ever get around to ordaining women. "One fat, old, white man after another," she said with wonder. "Not to be mean, I'm just being descriptive."

I loved the pope's recent statements on climate change, capitalism, annulments and so much more. I read the pope's letter granting priests faculties to forgive women who confess to abortions during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy. It is an extraordinary gesture to absorb among American Catholics, whose bishops made anti-abortion activism the overweening political concern for years, even as Catholic rates of abortion are higher than that of the Protestant population.

But the same letter makes another point starkly clear: the pope extends mercy to women in positions of dire need, while he cannot fathom women in positions of church power.

At the end of the letter is a less-noticed but no less extraordinary item in which Pope Francis grants the same new confessional powers to priests of the Society of St. Pius X, or SSPX.

The SSPX is a traditionalist group not formally under the jurisdiction of the Vatican. The conservative Pope Benedict XVI spent several years unsuccessfully trying to woo them back. Now Pope Francis, too, is extending an olive branch.

But Francis is doing it, commentators say, not because he likes the SSPX as much as Benedict. He's doing it as another angle on the same message he's sending to women who have had abortions: all are sinners and all are welcome in this one church. The "Year of Mercy," he wrote, "excludes no one."

I am not so sure. Women who are sinners are welcome. Men illegally ordained are welcome.

But women illegally ordained are not welcome.

Besides the SSPX, there are other Catholic groups not formally under the jurisdiction of the Vatican. Those that ordain women have been condemned harshly. Most experts think that when Benedict XVI intensified condemnation of women's ordination in 2007 and 2010, he was reacting to Roman Catholic Womenpriests, who have been ordaining women in the U.S., Europe and other countries since 2002.

Pope Francis did not say that absolutions granted by Roman Catholic Womenpriests would be considered valid by Rome. He did not say that the Year of Mercy would recognize women priests of dozens of other independent Catholic jurisdictions in the U.S. and around the world.

When he met with the Old Catholics of Europe, he noted "distance" from them because they ordain women.

He is not meeting with Roman Catholic advocates of women's ordination at all. The third international Women's Ordination Worldwide Conference, meeting in Philadelphia last weekend, would consider it a triumph if Francis lifted the official church ban on merely discussing the topic.

As we finished dinner on Sunday, family members got directions to go visit Our Lady of East New York.

Who knows why.

Devotion to Mary the mother of Jesus under her various local titles is Catholic tradition. After generations of family and decades of immersion, Catholics often feel nurture might as well be nature.

But maybe, too, it's her difference from the procession of cardinals and bishops. She is the other half of the human race.

Our Lady of East New York seems really to welcome everyone, in four languages. She hears a lot of smack on the streets. She sees a lot, too. She does not presume to pronounce sin or offer absolution.

Is this Mary just the projection of post-Catholics inventing a post-Catholicism?


But it's heartening to imagine that someone even higher than Pope Francis might be a little ahead of him on this mercy thing.

Walking to see her as Sunday's sun set, maybe we ended up having church after all.

Julie Byrne is Hartman Chair of Catholic Studies and associate professor of religion at Hofstra University. Her book The Other Catholics: Remaking America's Largest Religion will be published by Columbia University Press in the spring of 2016.